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Chinese South China Sea Air ID Zone Unlikely

TAIPEI — As China uses more muscle than talk in the South China Sea, regional fears that Beijing will impose a new air defense identification zone over the sea are doubtful in Taipei, experts said.
 
At least, they add, not in an attempt to solidify China’s territorial claim to a maritime area the size of India.
 
China declared an air ID zone over the East China Sea in November 2013 covering the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu Islands. The announcement rocked the region, causing confusion over exactly what China was prepared to do to enforce its zone. In such zones, aircraft flying through the airspace must provide information to authorities or face any number of responses.
 
Lin Chong-Pin, former Taiwan deputy defense minister for policy, said Beijing learned lessons from the negative impact of its “awkward and sudden announcement” of the East China Sea zone. “Apparently, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping jumped in quickly to rescue the face-losing fiasco by having Beijing’s spokesman say that the [zone] was not equivalent to airspace.”
 
Lin said two factors discourage China from declaring a similar identification zone over the South China Sea.
 
First, Beijing’s recent efforts on island-building in the Spratly Islands and its rapid upgrading of naval capabilities suggest that de facto control of the area by China is more important than a verbal announcement of an air ID zone.
 
Since 2014, China has been engaged in a rapid reclamation on submerged reefs in the Spratly Islands, including landfill operations that will allow runways long enough for fighter aircraft.
 
Second, an air ID zone in the South China Sea would work against Xi’s plans for a “maritime Silk Road,” Lin said. Xi’s “one belt and one road” initiative would see the establishment of an overland “Silk Road economic belt” linking China to Europe by cutting through mountainous regions in Central Asia, and a “maritime Silk Road” linking China’s port facilities with the Africa coast and then up through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea.
 
Lin believes that China needs the region’s cooperation to fulfill Xi’s dream. There is also the issue of the region’s economic reliance on China that forces many to think twice about enraging Beijing.
 
“It is a misperception that the declaration of an [air ID zone] would enhance China’s sovereignty claims,” said Ching Chang, a research fellow at Taiwan’s ROC Society for Strategic Studies and a former naval officer.
 
Chang said China has been unable to advance its sovereignty claims over the East China Sea since declaring the ID zone. Therefore, China would be unable to enhance its territorial claims over the South China Sea by declaring a similar zone there.
 
If China were to declare a zone, it would do so along its coast facing the South China Sea, not within it, and the only real reason to do so would be in reaction to US intelligence flights, such as the 2001 EP-3 Aries incident that resulted in a collision with a Chinese J-8 fighter near Hainan Island, Chang said.
 
Unlike the East China Sea, the airspace of these flights is fully covered by two flight information regions (FIRs) based at Sanya on Hainan and Hong Kong. All civil aviation flight information is automatically acquired by the Chinese military, which excludes the possibility of confusion between military aircraft and civil aircraft in the airspace of interest, Chang said. For China, to establish a zone along the coast would not provide any additional information that they already now acquire through these two FIRs.
 
For the South China Sea and the establishment of an air ID zone in that area, “there is no reason ... to unnecessarily intimidate neighboring states,” Chang said.
However, China’s behavior in the East China and South China seas has been unpredictable. The East China Sea announcement surprised the region and recent aggressive efforts to expand Chinese-occupied islands in the South China Sea have many in regional capitals guessing at Beijing’s next move.
 
Lin Cheng-yi, research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, said China is facing uncertain diplomatic challenges from regional neighbors who are taking their grievances to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other international bodies for arbitration and debate.
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